Film Review: Spotlight image

Film Review: Spotlight

Cinema, at its best, is a medium that reveals emotional truth. In the case of Spotlight, when you see a victim of clerical abuse break down in tears, when the extent of the cover up is revealed, layer by layer, when you see three children in a lawyer’s waiting room about to testify, suddenly something moves from a sad news item to painful, heart-wrenching reality. For Christians, the grief that you feel is made more acute by the role the church played in it, as the survivors recount their response to grooming as like being shown special attention by God. One survivor puts it bleakly: “this wasn’t just physical abuse, it was spiritual. They robbed you of your faith in God.”

Spotlight is not, however, the film you might expect. The title is the name of an investigative journalism team at the Boston Globe who were among the first to uncover the extent of the scandal, and the film mostly focusses on their research and writing procedures. As such, it’s not a polemic against the Catholic church or religion, nor is it in any way a story that exploits the drama of abuse. Instead, it’s a restrained, intelligent exploration of how a community can collectively turn a blind eye to its own atrocities.

Remarkably for a film about such an emotive subject, there is no sentimentalism, no moment of grandstanding from the director or its excellent cast. Sometimes I enjoy a film for the bravura cinematic techniques or stunning imagery, yet boundary-pushing experimentation with form only ever really works if it serves the story being told; in Spotlight, director Tom McCarthy shoots it very simply in a way that allows the narrative to unfurl at its own pace. Most visually striking is the apparent omnipresence of church buildings in Boston, as the images of their stone towers change from beauty to intimidation. Aside from that, this is a film obsessed with the minutiae, from collecting print clips to poring over dusty documents that hide insidious truths.

Such unshowy technique puts a lot of trust in the cast, who all rise to the challenge of making sifting through libraries and filing for court documents compelling. Picking standouts is almost moot, as Spotlight shows how you can create an ensemble where every character feels real, but I found Michael Keaton’s strong-willed team leader to be the most engaging. The end result is that at no point during the film do you feel manipulated as an audience member, merely presented with the reality of what happened. This makes its horror more palpable and more upsetting.

Spotlight isn’t easy to watch, with extra levels of provocation for Christians, but it is important. One of the film’s strongest elements is in uncovering the mutual culpability of an entire community in perpetuating these crimes. While there are the priests and church officials who work to cover up the sins of their peers, there are also the lawyers, the neighbours, the parishioners. Even the righteous crusaders of the Boston Globe, good people doing important work, are not entirely free from guilt on this issue, and as that theme emerges it should cause a good deal of introspection. While it’s unlikely that any of us have been involved in covering up paedophilia, we are probably all too ready to hide behind our own righteousness when confronted with systems and ideologies that oppress or hurt or corrupt. It’s too easy to pass blame and guilt when “no one is righteous – not even one.”

It’s also not enough to distance yourself from these events, perhaps heaping it all on the Catholic church while framing your poster of Calvin, as the devastating effects of this global scandal continue to damage the face of the Church today. There comes a time when you have to stop trying to explain it away, or disassociating yourself with it, and try to work out instead how to seek healing and where to find grace in such a situation. I mentioned grief at the start and it is a powerful film that can make you feel that; I think Spotlight is such a film. Don’t approach with hackles raised, ready to defend, but instead allow yourself to feel the weight of sadness and then pray for justice.

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